People are dying in Maine’s prisons. Thanks to the total lack of transparency and oversight enjoyed by the Maine Department of Corrections, we have little information as to why.

In April, 48-year-old Jeremiah Young died at Maine State Prison. Eight months later, state medical and law enforcement officials still refuse to provide any details about what transpired.

When the Phoenix reached out to the Chief Medical Examiner’s office at the end of October, we were told they didn’t have “any information to release at this time.” Mark Belserene, who works in that office, failed to respond to follow-up questions about when more information might be made available and how long such investigations typically take.

What do we know about Young’s experience as an MEDOC prisoner? He sued the department several times over the last ten years, alleging discrimination by corrections officers, who mistreated him and other prisoners for being Black and Muslim. This includes an incident in which Young said Muslim prisoners who asked for food utensils were told “you pray to Allah with your hands, you can eat with your hands.”

He’s also accused corrections officers of tampering with his mail, retaliatory write-ups, and failing to protect him from assault by another prisoner.

What little bits of information we do know about those who have died in MEDOC custody comes from currently and formerly incarcerated witnesses.

In June, 28-year-old Dana Bartlett died at the Bolduc Correctional Facility, a prison work camp for people who are preparing for release. A former prisoner who had been at Bolduc at the same time as Bartlett told reporters he was afraid of his cellmates, who had previously attacked him.

They said Bartlett asked corrections officers repeatedly and unsuccessfully to move him to another cell. He made this request multiple times on the day he died, until a CO threatened disciplinary action if he didn’t quit. He was found dead a few hours later.

MEDOC hasn’t responded to reporters’ requests for information about Bartlett’s death. The medical examiner hasn’t released information. Reporters ping-pong between state officials who won’t comment, ignore records requests, or direct questions to each other.

Andrew Leighton was 51-years-old when he died at Maine State Prison in October. His obituary stated he had a “brief illness.” Two prisoners told journalists they tried and failed to get Leighton medical attention for his difficulty breathing, which was so severe he could be heard struggling from a distance.

A “working copy” of his death certificate obtained by the Bangor Daily News noted Leighton suffered from complications from repeated asthma attacks, an infection of his salivary glands, and life-threatening sepsis.

Law enforcement and the medical examiner’s office are said to be “investigating” the death.

Meanwhile, the MEDOC is called upon to assess whether county jails (where people are also dying behind bars) are compliant with standards.

Monica Johnson was 38-years-old when she died in September at a hospital after attempting suicide at the jail in Hancock County. A local newspaper declared the jail was “cleared of any wrongdoing after a state investigation” undertaken by two “compliance” officials from the MEDOC.

Sheriff Scott Kane said MEDOC officials determined his staff and facility were “100 percent in compliance” and were “very complimentary of [officers] and the staff.” They made “one note” about “mandatory standards.”

Sheriff Kane said one new employee on shift at the time didn’t complete CPR training and resigned. He added the job was “a little more than he wanted to deal with” and that it was a 

“difficult situation for everybody.”

Deaths like these happen every year in Maine. And they don’t always make the news. Even when they do, the claim that there’s an “investigation” is rarely-if-ever followed up with publicly reported findings. Mainers must create pressure and a political price for these failures of transparency and accountability when the state assumes control over the life of another, or we can expect more mysterious deaths to greet us in 2019.

Brian Sonenstein is a reporter covering incarceration and the prison abolition movement. He is a columnist for the Portland Phoenix, co-founder of Shadowproof.com, and co-host of the Beyond Prisons podcast. Shadowproof.com/beyond-prisons

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